The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Early signs point to a strong, disruptive El Niño

Whales and fish are showing up in odd places, nesting pelicans are in dire straits, and experts are increasingly convinced that this will be a significant event

El Niño

Yellowfin tuna are being caught far north of their typical range this season. Photo by Mark Rayor

A developing El Niño in the equatorial Pacific has generated the usual predictions of drastic weather changes—some devastating, some beneficial—throughout the world.

There’s a 90 percent probability that an El Niño will form, according to some experts. That’s up considerably from previous predictions, but the main question at this point is whether this will be moderate El Niño or, more likely, a powerful warm-water event such as those in the early 1980s and late ’90s.

(El Niño is characterized by unusually warm sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, whereas a La Niña is characterized by unusually cold temperatures. Strong El Niños typically alter weather patterns and can cause severe flooding in some areas, and droughts in others.)

The extent of El Niño’s strength won’t be known until late summer or fall. But based on several interesting signals, in the form of mammals, birds, and fish showing up where they don’t typically belong, it’s looking as though this El Niño is going to be a very powerful event.

El Niño

Bryde’s whale mom and calf swim off Huntington Beach, California, in an extremely rare sighting; photo by ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Earlier this week two Bryde’s whales, a mother and calf, were photographed during two voyages on the same day off Huntington Beach, California, by researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

Bryde’s whales, which measure to about 45 feet, are fairly common in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Sightings off California, however, are extremely rare.

Schulman-Janiger said that during NOAA surveys off California between 1991 and 2005, there was only one confirmed sighting of Bryde’s whales, which are also referred to as “tropical whales” because they prefer a warm environment.

El Niño

Mahi-mahi, such as this one, are already being encountered just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo by ©Pete Thomas

Less than a week earlier, a large pod of pilot whales showed off Dana Point on the Orange County coast. Pilot whales are found around the world, including off Mexico, but it had been nearly 20 years since they were last spotted off Southern California.

In late March, false killer whales, another ultra-rare visitor from warmer waters, thrilled whale watchers off Orange County.

Marine creatures showing in odd places often portends strange happenings in their environment.

El Niño

Pilot whales, which had not been seen off California in almost 20 years, were spotted off Dana Point on June 7. Photo by ©Frank Brennan/Dana Wharf Whale Watching

Fishermen are seeing signs, also. Anglers out of San Diego, on short excursions into Mexican waters, began catching yellowfin tuna in May. That’s unprecedented, according to some, as this sub-tropical species typically doesn’t show that far north until late summer, if at all.

During the El Niño in 1983 to 1984 and 1997 to 1998, however, yellowfin tuna migrated north early and, during the summer, were caught well into U.S. waters. (The 1997-98 El Niño generated heavy rainfall throughout California during the winter, and prolonged periods of rough seas exacted a heavy toll on sea lions and other mammals. Sub-tropical fish species were biting as far north as Oregon.)

“We’ve already started to see very unusual fish catches here,” Tim Barnett, marine research emeritus with the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told KPBS. “The first yellowfin tuna was caught in May—that has never happened before to anybody’s recollection.

“And the other thing too is the first dorado (mahi-mahi)—first of June. That has never happened before. They really like the warm water and you normally don’t see them here until September.”

El Niño

California brown pelicans, such as these two off Cabo San Lucas, are having a tough time in the Sea of Cortez, perhaps because of unseasonably warm water and a diminished bait fish supply. Photo by ©Pete Thomas

Barnett said the 1997 to 1998 El Niño, the biggest in a century, caused a northward shift of the entire fishery population, and he predicts a similar event is developing.

Water temperatures are unseasonably warm in some areas off Southern California, but only by a couple of degrees. Temperatures are significantly warmer than usual, however, off parts of western Mexico, including the Sea of Cortez.

This not only drives fish populations and some mammals beyond their typical range, but it causes shifts in bait fish populations.

This appears to have seriously affected California brown pelicans, about 90 percent of which breed and rear young in the Sea of Cortez.

Researchers recently discovered that the 2014 breeding season was so poor that one scientist referred to it as “a bust.”

El Niño

False killer whales off Dana Point in late March, in a very rare sighting; photo by ©Pete Thomas

Sam Anderson, a UC Davis biologist and part of a survey team that visited traditional nesting sites, told ABC News that where they would typically encounter tens of thousands of breeding pairs of pelicans, there were only sparse numbers. Some nesting sites were alarmingly deserted.

“That’s what we call a failure, a bust. The bottom dropped out,” Anderson said.

Mark Rayor, who runs Jen-Wren Sportfishing in the Sea of Cortez, in Baja California’s East Cape region, said sardines and other types of bait fish are largely absent.

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Rayor has logged water temperatures as high as 86 degrees, which is more typical of late July or August. He said blue marlin and sailfish, which generally begin to arrive in early August, are already showing in the offshore blue water. (Above NOAA chart shows where sea-surface temperatures are abnormally warm in portions of the Pacific.)

Anderson, however, was reluctant to place all of the blame for the pelicans’ plight on the developing El Niño.

“During most El Niño events we’ve seen, numbers of nesting attempts drop by at least half to two-thirds, and production goes down, too. But it drops from thousands to hundreds, not 10 or less.”

Whether El Niño is to blame or not, however, a powerful El Nino appears imminent, and the marine environment, on this side of the equator anyway, is already somewhat off-kilter.

And these are just some of the early messengers of change; they probably won’t be the last.

–Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Twitter

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